Category Archives: Week 8: Taiwanese queer fiction; M. Butterfly

Burdens, Bodies

The burden of the body seems a common thread through our course’s texts. The body burdens us because its desires put us in conflict with accepted norms, forcing us into the closet or into the position of outlaw. Or it burdens us because its physical traits do not match up with our views of ourselves, forcing us to surgically reconstruct them in our own ways. It burdens us by carrying memories, pressing the traces of childhood trauma or sexual encounters into our flesh. Its mannerisms tell people something we are trying to hide. It exposes too much of our history and identity, risking that, secrets revealed, we will face punishment for what we have done or want to do.

For Little Tong, the protagonist of Chu T’ien-Wen’s “Bodhisattva Incarnate,” his queer body is the origin and manifestation of an emotional burden that projects detached malaise onto the rest of his life. Comparing his body to a dried fish chipped at and used for seasoning, Tong thinks to himself, “The body is a burden, let it be pared away and disappear!” (32). This explicit equation of body with burden reflects anxiety that originates within oneself. This anxiety traces its roots far deeper than the anxiety of the closet or the fear of the public eye: it originates from the fact of being born to begin with, and the impossibility of being born into a body whose desires put one at risk of never settling down with one partner, of never reaching stability or fulfillment, of dying from AIDS, of failing to make a genuine connection with other people. The isolated anxiety of Tong floating by himself in the swimming pool as he considers such existential dilemmas conveys the difficulty of carrying (and living within) this burdened body (31). The act of floating also calls to mind the nothingness that Tong longs for.

The recognition of a burden proceeds immediately to the desire to lay it down. The burden of Tong’s body creates within him a longing for relief, for nothingness. This nothingness is found, as suggested by the “pair of eyes watching” Tong, in an encounter with another person (32). Tong’s encounter with Zhong Lin, however, seems to only complicate his anxiety further, providing not relief but instead more burdens to carry and more questions to consider. I think here of Giovanni’s Room, in which David and Giovanni reach nothingness through their seclusion from everyday life; retreating to a tiny room on the edge of the city, they create a space removed from everyday life and protected from outside view, a space in which, to the outside world, they are nothing. Yet as in Giovanni’s Room, the quest for nothingness in “Bodhisattva” contributes to the characters’ original anxiety. The impossible choice between carrying one’s burden for eternity or adding to it by seeking to dispose of it gives all of these queer engagements no hope for growth or resolution. Both texts end unsatisfactorily, for both reader and character, by gesturing back to their openings, drawing a circle (or, to return to Tim Dean and Michel Foucault, a spiral) in which intimacy serves only to cloak entrapment.

As one of the few texts we’ve read with a straight author, “Bodhisattva” triggers an extra consideration: who is carrying this burden, if not the (potentially dead) author? In Giovanni’s Room it is easy to conflate, or at least associate, tortured expat David with tortured expat James Baldwin. I’m reminded especially of poetry by queer authors like Reinaldo Arenas or D.A. Powell. In poems like these, the speakers often remain undefined and vague enough that readers can substitute the poets’ anxiety for the speakers’. In all these cases the text’s burden is perceived, I would submit, as undeniably authentic, because of the author’s identity. Since many critics contest the legitimacy of Chu T’ien-Wen to speak of the gay experience, the ability of her works to carry this burden authentically is up for debate, as well. Laying aside the ethics of Chu’s decision to write from a gay point of view, the reality that she did write from this point of view, and that she compellingly conveys the emotional burden expressed by many queer-authored texts we’ve read, poses yet another challenge to our attempt to define queer literature. I’m not sure yet whether this challenge opens queer literature to new possibilities or instead effaces its uniqueness and, in effect, its very queerness.



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The China Doll

Historically, Asian women have been stereotyped in the United States and the western world in general into two categories, the “China Doll” (submissive, hypersexualized, ultra-feminine) and the “Dragon Lady” – (dominating, manipulative, also hypersexualized.) 

In my Asian-American queer literature class, we talked about the invisibility of queer Asians because of the west’s feminization of Asia. According to these stereotypes, all Asian men are feminine and desexualized, whereas all Asian women are ultra-feminine and hypersexualized. This leaves no room for gender-bending or lesbian Asian women; it also leaves gender-bending and queer Asian men invisible, since for them, being more feminine of center is considered the norm.

In M Butterfly, Hwang’s character Song takes advantage of these stereotypes to deceive Gamillard into believing he is the ultimate orientalized, submissive china doll. Even though in 20 years he never sees his lover naked and has intimate relations with her multiple times, Gamillard doesn’t consider the possibility that his Butterfly is lying to him because that possibility, in his worldview, simply isn’t there. As Song explains to the judge, “The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated, because a woman can’t think for herself” (62). Underneath this explanation is a deeper and even more disturbing one: that, for the West, the East only exists in its own mind, its own projected stereotypes. A man knows what women want, because in a patriarchal society, what a woman ought to want is dictated by men. The woman does not exist outside of the man’s conception of her – therefore how could she possibly be different from his conception of her? This goes double for the Orientalized woman, against whom patriarchy and colonialism have twisted together in a haze of stereotypes invented for the sole purpose of rationalizing her subjugation.

This is the heart of Gamillard’s denial. He simply cannot see outside of himself and his own wants and needs; he cannot see the “other” as a person as vital and complicated as himself. He sees only what he wants to see and what he has been taught to see, which are essentially the same. It must be strange, to be so raised on one’s own superiority to the rest of the world that one can barely comprehend the humanity of others. After such an education, it must be particularly devastating to have these lifelong delusions popped.

Perhaps I’m being hard on Gamillard. After all, he more than gets what he deserves when, in a turn of poetic justice, he turns himself into his own Madame Butterfly. “It’s a…a pure sacrifice,” he tells Song at their first meeting. “He’s unworthy, but what can she do? She loves him…so much. It’s a very beautiful story” (18). Like the original Butterfly, Gamillard is manipulated cruelly by a man with ulterior motives who preys on his ignorance and on his dream of perfect love. Also like Butterfly, he eventually kills himself for that love, a love that was always a delusion. It’s in Gamillard’s acknowledgment of himself as Butterfly that confirms the absurdity of the orientalized China Doll. It puts the spotlight on the European man who so desperately needed that stereotype to be real that he became it himself.



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The Other

I studied music history throughout high school and had to analyze key arias from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in detail, but the storyline never seemed to move me – perhaps because I was a fifteen-year-old pianist more interested in the intricacy of Bach’s fugues than the cross-cultural tragic love story. It all seemed so unrelatable and far removed from a teenager’s life, but reading M. Butterfly – although it is a play considerably different from the opera – brought to light some of the underlying issues that my teenage self overlooked. The most intriguing of these issues is that of the Other and what makes it at once attractive and repulsive. In this post, I will attempt to tie together seemingly unrelated subjects from colonialism to Orientalism to queerness to the subculture of hipsterdom.

What is with our fascination with the Other? Things that are new to us can be exciting and refreshing because they offer us a different perspective, but because they are new it is also likely that we don’t completely understand them – and we all know that we fear what we don’t understand. Perhaps this is a good place to begin examining why colonialism and Orientalism give rise to two sides of the same coin: a simultaneous desire to silence and denigrate the Other while idealizing and being fascinated by it. The novelty of the different culture is attractive because it is exotic and interesting, but the alien aspect of it evokes a need to silence the culture and make it one of “us”. The line between Us and Them is constantly being drawn and re-drawn as we discover and incorporate different cultures into one of our own. Sometimes, this act is harmless, i.e. Debussy incorporating the sounds of the Gamelan orchestra into his piano works. Other times, cultural appropriation can be seen as harming the original intent of the culture from which the ideas, symbols, etc. are borrowed. The latest trend of integrating tribal patterns into fashion, clothing and accessories are an example of such.

The exploration of the lines between Us and Them are what makes M. Butterfly a queer text, for me anyhow, more so than the homoeroticism or possible transsexuality. After all, the term “queer” is used to refer to a community of people who feel somehow outside of the societal norms in regards to gender, sexuality or even politics. According to PFLAG, “It is a fluid label as opposed to a solid label, one that only requires us to acknowledge that we’re different without specifying how or in what context”. Thus, parallels can be drawn between the colonial conqueror’s view of the Other and society’s view of the queer community; there is simultaneously a fascination and a desire to denigrate which stems from fear of the unknown and unfamiliar.

If we take a step back, we can see that this two-sided coin is everywhere in cultures and subcultures. Take the recent cultural backlash against hipsters for example. There is a certain smugness associated with hipsters who enjoy things ironically or act in ways they are not expected to act, i.e. to quote the PBS video, “You are not a 19th century oil baron. Why the handlebar moustache?”. On the other hand, there lies the possibility that someone genuinely enjoys what they aren’t expected to enjoy. What then? “Hipster” becomes a negative term with which to call someone’s authenticity into question and, by extension, claim authenticity for oneself. Here again we see the theme of drawing the line separating Us from Them and the simultaneous fascination with and defamation of a culture that, though interesting and seemingly novel, is not well understood. As one blogger comments, “Suffice it to say, no one self-identifies as a hipster; the term is always applied to an Other, to separate the authentic Us from the inauthentic, “ironic” Them”. Perhaps these lines of separation are unavoidable, seeing as the cultures and subcultures that exist are so numerous and so vastly different from each other and yet human creations can’t help but be an amalgamation of these cultures that surround us. How does queer culture fit into all this? There is a joke that with hipsters on the rise, queer people have gained a sort of camouflage, but both are regarded by society as the Other. The interplay between identifying as Us or Them is a fascinating subject that applies to many facets of human identity from religion to ethnicity to sexuality and there remains a lot to be explored.



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M. Butterfly- A Reflection of Cultural Stereotypes Surrounding Asian Women

Dublin Bound

In the play M. Butterfly, Henry David Hwang challenges his audience’s perceptions of Asian women and Western men.  The play follows the twenty-plus year relationship of French diplomat Rene Gallimard and a presumed Chinese woman, Song Liling.  Playwright Hwang draws direct parallels to Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly.

Puccini’s opera is exactly what his twentieth-century audience expects.  It is a romanticized relationship between a Western man and an Asian woman-following cultural stereotypes of both East and West.

Hwang’s play begins in a similar fashion to Puccini’s piece.  Song is Gallimard’s mistress, and is able to use his perceptions of Asian women to convince Gallimard that she is a woman.  Gallimard doesn’t question her “modesty,” and is together with her for more than twenty years before finding out that Song is in fact a man.  

Through Song, Hwang helps audience members question their own beliefs about Asian women.  Towards the end of the play, a male-presenting Song challenges Gallimard about his own beliefs (and the audience members as well):  The West believes the East, deep down, wants to be dominated — because a woman can’t think for herself. …You expect Oriental countries to submit to your guns, and you expect Oriental women to be submissive to your men.”  Song points out that no one thinks twice about a beautiful Asian woman falling in love with an ordinary Western man, but could never believe that a “ blond homecoming queen fell in love with a short Japanese businessman” (p. 84).  

Academic scholars and theater critics have dissected Hwang’s cultural commentary in M. Butterfly, which we touched on in class.  But what of other current media representations of Asian women?  In modern day, do we find ourselves perpetuating Puccini’s stereotypes, or have we moved past them?  

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Queering Spaces-Giovanni’s Room

Dublin Bound

In modern day queer culture, there is a movement to create “safe spaces” for LGBTQ identified people.  These spaces are designed to be places where gender can be expressed outside of the binary, and love or attraction is expressed outside of heteronormativity.  In James Baldwin’s tragic novel, Giovanni’s Room, David and Giovanni create such a “safe space” in Giovanni’s small room where the two carry out their love affair.  This room serves to provide a backdrop for their affair-and “life in that room seemed to be occurring beneath the sea, time flowed past indifferently above us, hours and days had no meaning” (p. 77).  

Much like in Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus, where Raoule and Jacques create their own safe space, a love nest-if you will, Giovanni and David use Giovanni’s room as a place where they can express their desire for each other without fear of judgement or persecution.  It is a room where Giovanni and David do not feel the need to define themselves in terms of society’s mores.  David is unable to “describe that room.  It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room” (p. 84).  Giovanni is intensely protective of their space and what it means for them, so much so that he stiffened “like a hunting dog and remained perfectly silent until whatever had threatened our safety had moved away” (p. 85).  

But their fabricated idyllic life could not be sustained.  Being in Giovanni’s room, being with Giovanni, causes David to question his manhood and his very being.  “I wanted to be inside again, with the light and safety, with my manhood unquestioned”  (p. 104).  When David comes home to find Giovanni drunk after being fired, he feels “the walls of the room closing in on me” (p. 105).  

Upon Hella’s return, David feels an intense need to flee the safe space that is Giovanni’s room, and to run from Paris.  Her return, combined with the loss of Giovanni’s job destroys what David and Giovanni had within the confines of Giovanni’s room.  David doesn’t want a safe space to express his desires, in fact, he wants to get as far away from them as possible.

When David leaves he asks Giovanni, “What kind of life can we have in this room?-this filthy little room.  What kind of life can two men have together, anyway?” (p. 143).  David has realized that the safe confines of Giovanni’s room do not extend to the outside world, and he cannot face the prospect of being with Giovanni.  

After Giovanni is caught for murdering Guillaume, Hella and David begin traveling.  Hella eventually uncovers David’s secret, and just what Giovanni’s room meant to the two men.  “I only knew that I had to get out of Giovanni’s room” David tells Hella (p. 164).  Hella leaves, Giovanni dies and David is left with no room and no love.

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Fetishized Erotics in M. Butterfly

In M. Butterfly, Hwang challenges stereotypes aimed at cultural, sexual, and national identities. The interracial story of a French diplomat and a Japanese man who impersonates a woman in order to obtain government secrets brings into light the effects of fetishizing and exoticizing a particular racial and ethnic group.

The use of these stereotypes is central to the play because they become both what allows Gallimard to exert his white, heterosexual, and male power and what eventually comes to be his downfall. Gallimard’s concept of gender, race, and how sexuality catalyze an unequal power balance between him and Song. Moreover, like David in Giovanni’s Room, Gallimard can only define his masculine power and identity in opposition to the femininity he sees inherent in Song. The regular emasculation he feels in white-dominated society is erased with Song, an emblem of submissive, effeminate Asian culture. He confides to Song that women serve as, “A vessel to contain my humiliation.” This “masculinity” allows him control over the women in his life and although Gallimard was already a man before he met Song, he feels “for the first time that rush of power–the absolute power of a man” (P. 28) as a result of believing he has forced Song into complete submission, sexually and otherwise.

It is Gallimard’s ignorant assumption about the East along with his belief in conventional masculine standards (which he does not meet, thereby making him insecure) that allows him to be so easily seduced by Song’s manipulation through her performance of traditional Japanese femininity. M. Butterfly criticizes the manner in which the West gazes at the East by positioning the same stereotypes used by Eurocentric standards to denigrate Asia as the sources of Gallimard’s eventual downfall. The ultimate stereotype, that an Asian woman is too subservient and devoted to her male counterpart, is proven false, since Song ends up divulging Gallimard’s secrets and betraying him.

The play also troubles the normative and usual notions of desire, particularly interracial and inter-cultural desire. Written in the late 1980s, at a time when society was becoming more tolerant of interracial relations and normalizing them in a variety of ways, Hwang problematizes the idea that interracial desire is equalized to racial progressivity and cultural competency. Instead, he forces readers to historicize interracial desires and to critique how these desires and erotics might be rooted in racism, racial stereotyping, and fetishizing the racial “other.” For Gallimard, his desire and infatuation with Song stems from eroticizing the Asian woman as subservient, submissive, and dedicated to male pleasure and well-being. And Song knowingly and consciously fits this mold. And in basing his play on Puccini’s opera, Hwang critiques popular culture’s representation of the Oriental “other” and its legacy on modern-day notions of desire and sexual attraction. Rather than positioning Song as the Oriental woman who inevitably dies, like in Puccini’s opera, Hwang instead ends the play by having Gallimard engage in seppuku, or suicide. By doing so, he creates an alternative narrative to interracial desires and erotics.


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The Puzzle of Spring Butterflies

I found reading, A Story of Spring Butterflies, by Chu T’ien-Hsin very intriguing as it is written in a purposefully confusing manner to a reader, not just within its content and structure but additionally is experienced within the identity of its author.  The piece pinpoints an ‘anonymous’ narrator, “Dear friend, please don’t try yet to guess my gender. Is it a man-man? Or woman-man? Woman-woman? Or is it a man-woman?” (76), addressing their views and opinions on the subject of homosexuality and in particular, the issues of the conflicting levels and ideals of intimacy between homosexuals and heterosexuals.

The way in which this piece differs from other texts that I have read is how the topic of discussion is not concretely depicted and in addition, with the unknown identity of the narrator, the reader is left guessing what direction the discussion will lead. This sense of uncertainty, and being ‘left in the dark’ somewhat emulates the feeling the narrator must have felt when he found out his wife had experienced a lesbian relationship, without his wife communicating this to him within the years of their marriage. Why the narrator would want to keep this insight hidden until the end of the piece is somewhat unclear, however it could be because this sense of ambiguity within much of the piece creates an amplified alertness to his thoughts and as to what he is attempting to address throughout his writing. It is as if the narrator has come to the conclusion that the reader will be searching and yearning for any insight or clarification as to who he is and why he would be writing in such a way, and thus he provides limited detail until the final paragraphs.

The second perplexing attribute to this piece, was finding out that the author of A Story of Spring Butterflies was actually a heterosexual female. In light of this new information, I reread the piece and can say that I did read it differently in the sense that it altered the authenticity of the accusations the narrator was expressing. “I admit that actually, aside from envying them, I really know nothing about lesbians. How does it begin? Why do they turn that way? What makes the progress get suspended? Why is it able to be suspended? Why does it recur again? What is the true length of the latency period?” (90).  From a reader’s perspective, once it is known that the author is a heterosexual female, statements such as this appear false and thus, in my view, discredits the ideas she is trying to convey.  Writing outside of your sexuality, especially when homosexuality continues to be a sensitive subject within society, discredits its authenticity and creates a lack of trust as to what is being conveyed.

A Story of Spring Butterflies seems to open up the question as to whether an author should write outside of their sexuality or not. If women are able to write from a male’s perspective and vice versa, then why can’t it be the same in regards to sexuality? Progression of time within which society becomes more accepting will no doubt rectify current attitudes. In my opinion, once homosexuality becomes a less sensitive issue and is further established within society, cross-categorical authorship within queer literature will additionally become increasingly observed, however the concept just seems too premature at this particular point in time.

— DA

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